Near the southwest corner of our house, a patch of dandelions has been growing and spreading over the last four years. Earlier this year, Sarah and I decided to spread some weed-and-feed on that area this fall. After reading Ted Steinberg's new book, American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, we changed our mind and the dandelions will get at least another year of life.
Steinberg's book is an entertaining and informative dissection of how Americans view and care for their lawns. As he points out early in the book, Americans spend more on lawn care every year than the GDP of Vietnam. Clearly, Americans care deeply about the health and appearance of their turf.
The ironic thing is that most people are, in fact, hurting their lawn when they slather it with fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; water it often and deeply; and then mow it close to the ground. This unholy troika combines to leave turf in a precarious situation where the failure to pursue any one of those three operations practically guarantees some sort of health crisis for the lawn. Steinberg, numerous turf experts, and state and county extension officers will tell most anyone who listens that lawns need little to no application of chemicals; much less water than they get; and that mowing a lawn to a height at least three inches high results in a much healthier, though less homogeneous, lawn.
Steinberg covers numerous topics in the book. He discusses just how it is that the lawn came to be such a staple of American life. He dissects the unfortunate intersection of lawn care and subdivision covenants. He dissects the impact that golf has had on lawns across America. The tools and substances that American use to care for our lawns do not escape Steinberg's notice, either.
The popular 2-4-D herbicide, which conveniently kills broadleaf plants while leaving grasses untouched is a product of World War II. It was originally designed to be sprayed on the enemy's food crops, which would then wither and die and force the opponent to surrender. The chemical may never have been used in that way, but plenty of American homeowners can attest to the chemical's potency. Unfortunately, almost no studies have been done on the long-term effects of repeated exposure to the chemical. Of course, the industries responsible for producing, selling, and spreading 2-4-D vigorously deny that their pesticide could cause harm to humans. And yet, when I think about a chemical that was designed to defoliate the ground in order to make an enemy's life more difficult, the first one that comes to mind is Agent Orange, and we all know the story behind that supposedly safe substance. 2-4-D may predate Agent Orange by several decades, but does that make it necessarily safer?
Since 2-4-D is the primary ingredient in weed-and-feed, I decided that I could learn to live with a a few dandelions. After all, Ira does like to eat them in the spring.
The lawn mower industry does not escape Steinberg's notice in this book. The industry itself clearly does not have consumers' interests anywhere near their hearts. Conveniently enough, Congress has been convinced (bribed) of the exact opposite. In fact, thousands of people lose fingers, toes, and sometimes their lives every year due to design and safety flaws present in both riding and push mowers. For instance, one is 50 percent more likely to be injured or die while operating a riding mower than while operating a push mower. Most of this increased risk is due to the fact that there is no government standard at the state or Federal level that must be met by a riding mower before it can be sold to the public. Instead, there are some reasonably loose voluntary standards created by the industry that, conveniently enough, are not difficult or expensive to achieve.
American Green is an excellent book that everyone who cares for a lawn should read. You may not necessarily agree with everything Steinberg says (his section on the dangers of leaf blowers was a real reach), but you have to acknowledge the work that went in to the creation of this highly-footnoted, yet entertaining work.